Saudi Arabia: Dr. Samia Al-Amoudi Shares Her Journey with Breast Cancer

It is an honor for American Bedu to interview Dr. Samia Al-Amoudi, mother, daughter, physician and breast cancer warrior.  

 

Dr. Al-Amoudi, first of all, thank you for giving me the opportunity to interview you on American Bedu blog. 

You are most welcome.

 

When did your journey with breast cancer begin?  How were you diagnosed?

It was a Friday, 7th April 2006, I came back home with my children after having lunch out.  I went to my room, and by mere chance, my hand touched my breast.  I felt a lump.  In a single moment, all my medical instincts sharpened up.  I began to feel up the lump, checking the tumor and the lymph nodes under my arm.  In a moment of time, I realized that God’s will have caught up with me.  In a moment of time, I realized what I had.

The sample that confirmed that I had cancer was taken on 12th April 2006… my birthday.

My birthday coinciding with the day I found out I had cancer… I have no idea what this means, but I had no illusions about the irony.

 

Prior to your diagnosis did you perform regular self-checks and/or receive annual mammograms?

Everyone asked me: “How come you didn’t discover the tumor earlier?”

I asked myself that same question even before they did.  How did I miss it? How can I possibly have breast cancer? How come I didn’t find out early when I am the one who diagnose patients and advise them to do mammograms?

“You’re a doctor! How could you let this happen to you?”

To all these questions, I have only one answer: fate.

I have to admit, though that I got so consumed by my own problems as a mother, and my responsibilities towards those around me both at work and at home. I forgot all about myself. I neglected myself.  Just like every mother. Every working woman.  We take care of everyone but ourselves.   

 

Where were you when you received your diagnosis?  How did the doctor break the news to you that you had breast cancer?  Were you alone?

I was at home when I felt the mass and recognized it is cancer next day I had the mammogram and biopsy.

 

What was your initial reaction?  Do you have a family history of cancer?

I loudly prayed to God to give me strength. I asked Him for strength because I know the reward only comes at the first shock. I called for Him, I reached out to Him with tears: ‘Do you love me so much to send me such a message of love?’

My family has no history of breast cancer.

 

     When and how did you inform your family of your diagnosis?  What was their reaction?  Were you ever fearful that they would not be supportive or understanding?

After I found out I had a lump in my breast, my biggest concern was how I’m going to break the news to my children, and how we’re going to deal with this.  Like I said before, it was a Friday when I discovered the tumor.  Within moments, I realized the magnitude of God’s will.  That’s when I left my bedroom and went to see my children.  I was stunned. But my fear for my children was much bigger than any shock or awe.  I have three children.  Abdullah is in the seventh grade, and Israa is in the fourth. There’s also my stepdaughter, who’s in college, and who stayed with me after my divorce. Those are my three children, the light of my life.

Hence, my fear for them was enormous. I know that many of you may not agree with the way I handled this with them, but upbringing is a matter of convictions. Every mother has her own convictions about how she should raise her children; every mother has her own way of handling life with them.  So I followed my own convictions of upbringing and faith.  I wanted them to find out from me, rather than hearing the wrong information from someone else, which would’ve frightened them and shaken their faith.  More importantly, I wasn’t about to hide things from them or lie to them.  Our children today learn more from TV and the internet than we think.  Thus, when I first felt the lump in my breast, I called them around and asked them to sit down.

“I want to hear your opinions about a problem a friend of mine has been having” I said. “She’s in the US, and doctors have discovered a lump in her breast – in other words, cancer, and she has no idea how to break the news to her children.” “Is it dangerous, mother?” my son Abdullah asked.

“Of course it is,” answered my Suzan. “Very dangerous.”  “Well, they’ll definitely be scared,” he said.  “She’d better tell it to them straight.” “She must be in pain, and they must know so they can feel and share her pain,” said my eight-year-old Israa.  “Mother Samia, you always told us honesty is the best policy.”

That was the first step on the ladder of my breaking the news.  On the evening of that same day, I told my daughter Suzan what the odds were.  I told her I planned to have tests done the next day. But I also told her I wanted to see the True Believer in her, the one who shows grace under pressure. Her fear and love assured me that taking her under my wing since she was a baby is paying off in this world – even before the afterlife. Thanks God for that.

The next day, the diagnosis was unequivocal.  After I had my mammogram test, and after the children came home from school, as we sat at the lunch table, I told them I ran into a relative of ours. Because my children and her children were friends, I wanted to get them closer to the idea.  I told them the story of her husband, who went through cancer and eventually got cured, and how she dealt with her children positively.  I wanted my children to know about him, and told them that now he’s living normally and works.

That was just a story I told them about someone they know, just so they know that there are people just like us out there.

But all that was the easy part.

That evening brought the most important part. I had little time, and the tests became more closer between. I told the children I was on my way to the doctor because there’s some lump in my chest. When I got back, my son Abdullah caught me off guard. “Mom, what did the doctor say?”

“He’s going to take samples and do an analysis,” I said. He went eerily quiet for a moment. Then he asked me outright: “Does this mean it could be cancer?”

From this moment on I knew I had to deal with my son like a grown man. “Probably,” I said. “Probably not. We’ll never know until the sample is taken.”

I then asked him about his homework and the like, and ended the conversation naturally.

My God! I’m running out of time! They’re going to begin treatment, and I’m going to go to hospital, either for surgery or chemotherapy. I’ll have to explain to them what they’ll have to live with from here on out. I’ll have to be a mother, a teacher, a sociologist, and psychiatrist all rolled into one. I’ll have to be a True Believer who gives doses of faith to her children.

The next day, I knew I had to be more candid. I had to sit down and talk to them about it. I told them the preliminary tests show that the lump is malignant. I explained to them that there are many different kinds of cancer, and there are kinds with which people can live for 20 years or more. I also told them that death has nothing to do with being sick. I gave them the example of a neighbor of ours who was run over by a car a few months earlier and died. I told Abdullah: “If one of your friends tells you your mother has cancer and she’ll die, tell him it’s not true. My mother is a doctor, and she explained everything there is to know about cancer.

I told them that because their mother is a doctor, they know more correct information than most of their friends.

 

At what stage of breast cancer were you diagnosed?  What was your treatment? 

It was at stage 1B and I had to go through chemotherapy ,lumpectomy and radiotherapy. I have thought that was it but unfortunately because I was HER2 +3 I had to take another treatment called Herceptin for another whole one year  .

 Do you think your being a physician helped you cope with your diagnosis or did the additional “insider knowledge” frighten you?

I do not know may be I was lucky to understand may be not because ignorance is bliss but I have faith and believe all is from God and that helped me a lot.

 

What type of chemo did you receive?  How many sessions did you have?  How did you react to chemo? 

I received four cycles of AC protocol and 4 Taxotene. It was hard and I felt very weak during that time.

 

What was among the best support you received while you underwent chemo?

I started to write my story in my weekly column in the newspaper al-madinah and the number of response and the reaction of the people was a real great support.

     Did you lose your hair?  How did that make you feel emotionally?

Perhaps the toughest part about chemotherapy is losing my hair.  A woman’s hair is like her crown: it represents her very feminine nature, her very identity. Even though I expected it, losing my hair was naturally painful. It was like I lost a part of me – as if every single hair deserted me and left me weeping.  When for the first time I grabbed a strand of hair and it got pulled into my hand, I asked my nine-year-old daughter Esraa what she thought. Her answer was something I’ll never forget.

“Think of them as points on the virtue scoreboard,” she said. My little girl was the unlikely teacher who taught me that every single hair is a point – as I hope it would be.

A couple of days later I realized that trying to keep what little was left of my hair was a lost cause, so I bought a shaving machine to get rid of the rest of it.  In order not to turn this into a painful memory, we made a party of it. My best friend and soul mate, Dr. Nadia Ghannam, shaved off my head with Esraa and my son Abdullah joyfully helping her out, while my daughter Suzan filmed it all with her camcorder.  We turned our sorrow into a party to make it easier on the little ones. Abdullah had a ball. A few days earlier, he shaved his head off when we went for Umrah. Now he said I looked like him. Abdullah said I looked like Demi Moore in G.I. Jane and then frivolously suggested we all shave up.

 

How did others around you react to you while you were going through treatment?

It was a shock to them in the beginning but the way I was strong it did impact the rest of my family and friends.

 

Did you continue working through your treatments?

Yes, I did work in the clinic for consultations but I could not continue to deliver my patients I had to adjust my schedules and work.

 

What were some of the biggest challenges you had to overcome during your treatment?

All the steps were challenging from breaking the silence and going in public to coping with my treatment.

Were you pleased with your treatment options and treatment?  Why or why not?

Yes completely satisfied being a doctor I could tell and I did trust my doctors and their management.

Do you think there is adequate support for women who are diagnosed with breast cancer in Saudi Arabia?  Please explain your answer.

Unfournately no still we need to educate the families and the patient partners and the society also still support group are not as efficient as they should be.

Some Saudi families are reticent or reluctant to admit that a family member has cancer.  What do you say to them?

I think we need more empowerment of women with knowledge the more they understand the less they will be reluctant to admit.

How can Saudi family, friends, and colleague’s best support a woman and her family when the woman is undergoing cancer treatment?

As I said we need to empower all so they know how and what to do to support.

Many Western hospitals have a “Cancer Navigator” to assist newly diagnosed patients and their families.  Do you think this is a needed service in Saudi hospitals?  Why or why not?

Yes and I am working on establishing this system in our center of excellence as this helps the patients through all stages and give her great support and best care.   

What are your top five tips for a Saudi woman who is battling breast cancer?

To have strong faith in God

To be empowered with knowledge

To understand what are her rights as a patient and ask for these rights

To make sure to choose the right place and qualified doctor in the field

To understand that this is a turning point in her life and she could contribute and use her experience to help other women and give them her support

 

In closing, is there anything else you wish to add?

Thank you for this it is the kind of support media could provide to spread knowledge and empower women in our society appreciate it very much.

Thank you again for this interview.  I think you have been a “pink trail blazer” for Saudi women in facing, fighting and overcoming their cancer head on.

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